The New Taiwan Challenges Beijing -- and Washington
May 4, 2000
By Karen Elliott House, president, international, of Dow Jones & Co.
TAIPEI, Taiwan -- A game of chicken is being played out in Asia today involving an increasingly democratic and self-confident Taiwan and a frustrated and politically fragile mainland China -- with both sides counting on an irresolute America to head off a collision.
As in any such game, each side wants to avoid conflict. For Taiwan, it could mean extinction as a political entity. For China, at worst, it could mean military confrontation with the U.S.; at best, Beijing would become a global political pariah on a scale that would dwarf its isolation after the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square. For the U.S., which has devoted nearly three decades of diplomacy to papering over the core contradictions in its China policy, the irony is that time, which was supposed to ease these contradictions, has instead exacerbated them.
The even larger irony is that as tensions again mount across the Taiwan Strait, it is small and resolute Taiwan that holds the stronger hand, while an increasingly strident China actually is playing a weaker one.
The Israel of East Asia
The immediate source of rising tension is the election as Taiwan's president of Chen Shui-bian, a genuine nationalist who has long favored independence from Beijing. But the real antecedent of the current tension is the emergence of democracy over this decade after a century of subjugation first by the Japanese and since 1949 by Chinese nationalists who fled the mainland. President Lee Teng-hui, who came to power courtesy of the ruling Kuomintang, or KMT, in 1988, soon began to realize Taiwan's security rested not on tenuous ties with the Pentagon but on the respect and support of the American people. The model was democratic Israel, threatened by large and hostile Arab forces yet sustained by American popular support. Mr. Chen's election last month was another step in the process of transforming Taiwan into the Israel of East Asia.
Meanwhile, in mainland China, an elderly Communist Party leadership finds itself increasingly isolated from its people. For some years that leadership has bought public tolerance, if not popularity, through economic growth.
As the pace of growth slows, the leadership needs an external issue to enhance its popularity. Since the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, President Jiang Zemin has chosen ever more stridently to wave the flag of reuniting Taiwan with the motherland. As a result, the regime now is hoist on the petard of its own rhetoric.
The dilemma for Mr. Jiang is that time isn't on China's side. While the military balance should increasingly favor a nuclear China focused on military modernization, every year brings Taiwan greater political legitimacy and international stature. As the Communist Party's legitimacy erodes, meanwhile, it must cross the leadership's mind that the party may not be around some years from now to reclaim Taiwan.
There are rational reasons -- from military risk to the prospect of political and economic isolation -- for China's leaders to put reunification by force out of their minds. But the proclivity of authoritarian rulers for political survival at any cost can transcend rational behavior and force a confrontation no one wants. That is the one factor that causes fear not only in Taipei but also in Washington, where the U.S. repeatedly recites the hope that China and Taiwan will resolve their differences peacefully.
This spring Washington faces a series of tests of its divided loyalties. The first is a request from Taiwan for an array of U.S. military hardware to defend against 200 Chinese missiles aimed at Taiwan. This month the U.S. tried to please Taiwan by agreeing to provide powerful long-range radar, but simultaneously sought to mollify China by denying Taiwan Aegis destroyers.
The next major test will come with Mr. Chen's May 20 inauguration. China insists the new Taiwanese president accept a so-called one-China policy as a prelude to talks and looks to the U.S. to twist Taiwan's arm. The Clinton administration's inclination to please Beijing is offset by strong congressional support for Taiwan. Moreover, President Clinton needs every vote he can muster to win passage two days later of legislation granting China permanent normal trade relations with the U.S. -- a point not lost on Mr. Chen.
Also before Congress is the Taiwan Security Enhancement Act, requiring closer U.S.-Taiwan ties, including visits by high-level U.S. military personnel to Taipei. The bill has passed the House, but Mr. Clinton's threat to veto it has so far dissuaded Taiwan supporters in the Senate from scheduling a vote.
An even more controversial test comes in June when Mr. Clinton has promised to make a decision on some form of U.S. national missile defense. While NMD aims at protecting Americans from missiles launched by rogue states like North Korea, Beijing sees it as further evidence of a strategy to contain China.
Given that China has few nuclear missiles capable of reaching the U.S., an effective NMD could blunt, if not eliminate, China's nuclear leverage over the U.S. Worse yet, China fears that a positive decision on NMD may prove a precursor to the U.S. extending theater missile defenses to Taiwan, thus turning vague security guarantees into practical and, at least in theory, impregnable ones. A less vulnerable Taiwan clearly would be less accommodating to Beijing's pressures.
However the U.S. resolves these tests, Mr. Chen seems to view the difficulties facing his country with remarkable serenity. Much like Ronald Reagan, who saw the Soviet Union not as a permanent superpower rival but as an "evil empire" destined to lose the Cold War, Taiwan's president-elect displays unshakable confidence that democracy on his island will outlast communism on the mainland.
"Democracy is a universal value and as long as we revere and love democracy, there will be peace and not war," he said in a recent interview. "We believe democracy is the key to continuity in relations between Taiwan and America." In effect, the Taiwan issue will be resolved, or rendered irrelevant, when China follows Taiwan's lead and becomes a democracy.
Mr. Chen is likely to prove a powerful symbol in America. Born poor, he graduated first in his law class at National Taiwan University and went on to defend political dissidents against the ruling KMT. This not only landed him in prison, but also left his wife permanently disabled after she was struck by a truck almost certainly driven by KMT agents intending to assassinate him.
For all his suffering, he remarkably is not embittered. He has pragmatically opened his government to members of the rival KMT, including one who will serve as premier. And he has been careful not to provoke Beijing, saying he is eager for dialogue. So far, he is as smooth a tactician as his role model, Britain's Tony Blair.
What Mr. Chen and most Taiwanese want is the status quo -- no formal declaration of independence, no reunification and continued expansion of economic ties with China. (Taiwan is already China's second-largest trading partner, after the U.S.) But the status quo is increasingly unacceptable to China. While Mao Tse-tung spoke of waiting 100 years if necessary to reclaim Taiwan, his successors 30 years later press for a date certain and soon. Because Mr. Jiang has so often talked of reclaiming Taiwan, he needs at least the appearance of progress toward reunification if he expects to persuade China's politburo to extend his leadership beyond 2002, when his tenure technically ends.
As this game of chicken plays out, the U.S. must use extremely deft diplomacy to avoid conflict. A degree of tactical ambiguity can be useful in strengthening Washington's hand with both sides. But the U.S. must be clear about its goal: ensuring that the future of Taiwan is decided by the Taiwanese people. That was less clear-cut at the time of the U.S.-China opening, when America's choice was between authoritarian regimes on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. But these days Taiwanese people have the freedom to chose their leaders and want the freedom to choose the island's future.
Protecting a democratic Taiwan is consistent with encouraging the continued economic liberalization of China, including passage of permanent normal trade relations with the U.S. But the combination of policies makes sense only if pursued with the conviction that economic and political freedom are inextricably linked. For America this must be a core conviction. In its truth lies the peaceful resolution of the China-Taiwan issue.